The New 'Nuclear Family' is Crucial for Teen Support

Sep 30, 2017

The iconic “Nuclear Family” has been chased after and argued over since it was first coined.  This idea of the perfect family is nothing more than the bandage America uses to cover the bullet wound, a mask hastily slapped over the disfigured face, lest anyone know how imperfect we really are.  Despite the forever failing Nuclear Family, families can still be happy.

We all have learned to picture a white picket fence and large yellow house.  The perfect wife and mother, with a minivan and natural talent for cooking.  A father in a suit with plenty of time for family dinners, homework, and sports games.  A son who always wins and a daughter with a perfect smile.  This is what everyone knows as the Nuclear Family.  However, we also all know this is never really the case, nor is it necessary.

When I was ten years old my mother left my father for a woman.  After a few years of confusion, I moved in with my brother, father, and aunt.  For many years, this was my family.  This was my normal.  I was happy living with my aunt as my guardian while my mother learned to breathe again without my father.  Then, when I was fourteen, my father passed away causing my family dynamic to shift again.  Just like that we changed from four to three.  A year after his passing, my brother, freshly graduated from high school, had a full time job.  He was almost never home, and when he was, he was never alone.  His friends would always be hanging around, happily eating my aunt's cooking and trying to give me advice on life I never asked for.  They became just as much a part of our strange, but functional, family as I was.

The fall after my father's death I started high school, not at my town’s public school, but at Catherine McAuley, what is now The Maine Girls Academy.  As I made new friends, I found my second family forming.  As what happens in most friend groups, my friends became just as important to me as my brother and aunt.   As life tested our friendship, I gladly accepted this.  In the middle of the year, a few of my classmates, former friends, stopped talking to me.  There was a long period of rumors and loneliness, but my two closest friends helped me to stay strong in a way my blood relatives would have never been able to.  This kind of interaction, a solid group of trusted people, is very important to children and teenagers.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information did a study on suicide and friendships of the American teenager.  They found that 4 percent of teens have tried to commit suicide in the last year and 60 percent of teens know someone who has attempted suicide.  The main causes for this is family, romantic relationships, peers, school, and other large social networks.

If a teenager has no support system, no loving family or friends, they lose the very important feeling of self-worth and self-confidence.  Whether it is a mom and dad, two moms, two dads, one of either, aunts, grandparents, or a best friend, if there is healthy love, it doesn’t matter.  Having a positive group of people, an anchor if you will, is the best thing any human can have.  Not only does it reduce the risk of physical health problems, but it also increases a feeling of self-confidence and worth.  Students perform better in school when they feel included in a social circle.

This ideal family life is far too often fantasized about.  As a country we need to let go of this impossible, and frankly destructive dream.  Right now, as a society, we are constantly striving to achieve perfection.  We are unable to stop, look around, and love what we have.  This includes more than just our immediate family.  We also must appreciate our friends as loved ones.  Our families can, and should be more than just the people we live with.  No matter the family style, whether parents, other relatives, or just friends, if it makes one feel important and loved, it is the “Nuclear Family.”

Elizabeth McAleney is a student at The Maine Girls Academy.  She produced this piece as part of the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Portland, sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.